John Banville: claiming Kafka as an Irish writer

John Banville

A few days ago the Booker Prize winning Irish writer John Banville was in Prague, to receive one of Europe’s most coveted literary awards, the Franz Kafka Prize. David Vaughan took the opportunity to talk to the writer about his work and his fascination with the cultural and literary world of Central Europe.

John Banville is one of the most richly poetic novelists writing in English today. He is best known internationally for his 2005 novel, The Sea, which is set in an Irish seaside resort and entwines memory with the present in a way that invites parallels with Milan Kundera. His writings have also brought him to Prague. Banville’s brilliant novel, Kepler, is set in the city at the time of the Renaissance, and opens with the wonderful line, “Johannes Kepler, asleep in his ruff, has dreamed the solution to the cosmic mystery.” In 2003 he wrote Prague Pictures, a portrait of the city that looks back to its mysterious past and also recalls Banville’s own first visit to Czechoslovakia a few years before the fall of communism.

“Much”, he writes in Prague Pictures, “has been written on the beauty of Prague, but I am not sure that beauty is the right word to apply to this mysterious, jumbled, fantastical, absurd city on the Vltava, one of Europe’s three capitals of magic – the other two being Turin and Lyon. There is loveliness here, of course, but a loveliness that is excitingly tainted.”

John Banville was the eleventh writer to receive the Franz Kafka Prize, joining such illustrious company as Harold Pinter, Philip Roth and Václav Havel. Banville himself has described it as an “old-style prize” in its emphasis on humanism, tolerance and timelessness, and with an international jury made up of what the Franz Kafka Society itself describes rather ponderously as “prominent personalities from the sphere of literary science and history”.

I caught up with John Banville at his hotel in Na Poříčí Street, a building that, aptly enough, once housed the insurance company where Franz Kafka worked. I began with the obvious question as to what the award meant to him.

“Well, this is a very important award. I’m thrilled to have it, of course, and I’m particularly pleased to have a prize which is associated with the name of Franz Kafka.”

What does Kafka mean to you as an Irish writer?

“Of course, we would probably claim Kafka as an Irish writer. His tone of voice is certainly quite Irish: that sense of melancholy, that sense of strangeness and of being a stranger in the world. I think that we empathise with that very much indeed.”

That’s interesting, because I believe in Ireland you tend to be seen as quite a European – or continental – writer, as a very philosophical writer in the sense that many Central European writers are. So maybe you are an Irish writer who could be claimed by Central Europe…

“Well, that would be nice – to be claimed by Central Europe! Of course I’m an Irish writer, I live in Ireland, my children live in Ireland, I write in what we call Hiberno-English, the Irish version of the English language, which has a very strong Irish accent. So I’m certainly an Irish writer, but I like to think that I’m European as well, that I have a sense of the great Europe beyond our shores.”

James Joyce also had a link with Prague. His brother-in-law was Czech and Joyce himself lived in this part of the world – in Trieste, with its Austro-Hungarian, somewhat fin de siècle feeling. Do you feel an affinity or identity with Central Europe?

“I haven’t got Joyce’s courage. Joyce left Ireland very young with no money, made a life for himself in Europe. I don’t think I would have had the nerve to have done that. I like to hide in Ireland, but I like to think of myself as an internal exile. But yes, I suppose many people in Ireland would regard me as being more a European writer than an Irish writer. I don’t think this is so. I’m also lumbered with the title of being a writer’s writer, which is the worst possible reputation you can have, because, of course, other writers don’t read other writers except to gain evidence against them. And it puts readers off.”

You seem to identify closely with Central Europe’s literary and philosophical tradition. I know that you are interested in Kant and that Heinrich von Kleist has been a great inspiration to you as a writer. Comparisons have been made with Kundera…

“Yes, I’ve always been interested in European thought, and I suppose I’ve been drawn to German thinking. I was certainly drawn to it when I was younger. I’m a little older now and I think I’ve lightened up a bit as I’m getting older. But yes, I do think fiction should think… at some level. Many writers would say this is not so. T. S. Eliot said it is no business of the artist to think. I presume he meant it’s only the business of the artist to feel, but I like the notion of there being a mind behind the fiction that I read and that I write.”

You have spoken about openness, about being open-minded – cosmopolitan. Do you sense this when you come to Prague today? It has changed so much since the time of Kafka, when it really was such a melting pot of different nationalities and languages. Do you still find a certain thrill in Prague when you come here – in that cosmopolitan sense – or is it just nostalgia?

“Oh yes, of course. Coming from a tiny island, it’s very exciting to be at sea in Central Europe in the sense of vast stretches of land all around one. We don’t get that in Ireland. I think in Ireland one’s never more than about 80 km from the sea. So yes, it is thrilling. Prague is still a fascinating city. I’ve been coming here for years. Prague has changed a great deal. It has now, as far as I can see, become a melting-pot for tourists, which seems to me a great pity – much too many tourists. I don’t know what citizens of Prague must feel about these endless lines of tourists tramping over their streets. But, of course, they bring money, so I suppose it helps. But one would like to have just one empty street in Prague.”

Tell me when you first came to Prague and how it differed from today’s Prague.

“Well, before 1989, Czechoslovakia, as it was then, was a very different place to what it is now. You could feel the fear, the distrust in the air. It was a much more Kafkaesque city than it is now, I suppose, in some ways. But also, the things of the mind were prized very, very highly indeed; it was a very intellectual city. It was a city of underground protest. There was a sense of always something clandestine happening that had to do with the mind and with thought and with art. So it was exciting for that reason.”

How did you come to be in Prague in the first place?

“I came because a friend of a friend of mine gave me the name of somebody here and I came to see the city and to see him.”

When was this?

“It was late 70s, I guess, or early 80s. I’m getting a bit vague now, you know. All those years are beginning to swim together in one…”

And we talked a little about Franz Kafka. You’ve also written about another very famous Prague character, Johannes Kepler, who was German, just as Kafka was also a German speaker. He was a great Renaissance mathematician, astronomer and astrologer. You’ve said that you chose to write about him because he’s a very sympathetic character to you. What do you mean by that?

“Well, he reminded me of myself – the little man running desperately in circles, trying to find an explanation for the world, for his place in it, to find a plausible system, to account for reality – and never finding it. Finding lots of rules and laws which are very important, but never actually finding his own way into what it is to be in the world – very much an existentialist before his time, I think. So I was fascinated by him. And I wrote about Kepler in Prague before I’d even come to Prague. When I came to Prague, I was quite pleased to see that I’d got it right. The imagination is always much stronger than the eye.”

But the Prague that you’ve found now, on this visit, is a city packed with tourists, with very few quiet spots. What are you going to do for the rest of your time in Prague in order to capture a little bit of the spirit of the place?

“Prague is still a wonderful city to walk in. I suppose I’ll do the usual thing and go up to the Castle, and walk round those old haunts, and go down Golden Lane – conjure up the conjurors that the Emperor Rudolf housed there. It’s still a magical city. I know that this is a cliché by now and I suppose that Prague people are sick and tired of hearing Prague referred to as ‘Magic Prague’, but, you know, I may complain about the tourists, but I am a tourist after all. I’d rather not be, but I am.”